Rocky Road: U.S.-Israel relations after 9/11

Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer had barely begun his tenure as the American Ambassador to Israel when the worst attacks in U.S. history took place. Twenty years later, he shares intimate details of the tension, conflict, and then growing understanding and cooperation between the two allies in the days, weeks and months after that fateful day

Ambassador Kurtzer and PM Ariel Sharon, 2004. Enjoyed close professional and personal relations | Photo: Moshe Milner, GPO

On September 11, 2001, I was enroute to Jerusalem to deliver a speech when my wife called to say a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York. As the American ambassador in Israel, my mind turned immediately to the implications of this occurrence – which appeared to be an accident – on American citizens in Israel and other such matters. While considering this, my wife phoned again to say a second plane had hit the towers. It was then clear to me that terrorists had targeted the United States.


As U.S. officials in the States grappled with the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attack and began to plan policy responses, I gathered my “country team” – the senior heads of section in the American embassy – to see what we needed to do. Following an intense discussion, I decided to activate our notification system for American citizens and to raise the security warning to its highest level. We closed the American School and advised our citizens to hunker down in place until we could coordinate with Israeli authorities and make a better evaluation of the situation.


The next days were a whirlwind of activity. Hundreds of American visitors found themselves stranded in Israel as the United States closed its airspace. I visited as many hotels as I could to talk to the travelers and update them on the situation. My staff and I also engaged in long and deeply substantive discussions with our Israeli counterparts, drawing on Israel’s experience in dealing both with terrorism and with the impact of terrorism on ordinary citizens. A few Israelis stated the obvious: now the United States could understand better the terrorism that Israel had faced for many years.


A rough start to the tenure


Despite the immediate solidarity that Americans and Israelis felt at that moment, the situation was not without some discord. Just before 9/11, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, the future King Abdullah, had written a sharp letter to President George W. Bush that threatened a change in U.S.-Saudi relations if Washington continued to back away from active efforts to resolve the Palestinian issue. In response to that letter, President Bush had written a forthcoming note that promised American support for Palestinian self-determination – the first time the United States had committed to this.


I was instructed to brief Prime Minister Sharon on the exchange of letters, which I did on September 9. He was extremely displeased, believing that the United States was shifting from its traditional support of Israel. During this period, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres had also been arguing for Sharon to approve a meeting between himself and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, but the Prime Minister was in no mood to agree.

Sharon was furious at what he perceived as the United States’ desire to shift responsibility for the situation in the Middle East to Israel

This confluence of circumstances played into the post-9/11 environment in a most unfortunate way. Like almost all other world leaders, Sharon wanted to talk to Bush to convey Israel’s condolences for the loss of life and to pledge support. When the two leaders spoke, more than 24 hours after the attack, Bush mentioned that it would be useful if the Peres-Arafat meeting could go forward. Sharon demurred.


I heard immediately from Sharon’s advisors that the Prime Minister was livid, having interpreted the President’s request as asking Israel to pay a price for the terrorism directed against the United States. They told me the following day that in a conference call with the Conference of Presidents of American Jewish Organizations, the Prime Minister had expressed his anger at what he perceived as the United States’ desire to shift responsibility to Israel.


I asked to see Sharon one-on-one and met with him in his Jerusalem office that Friday, less than 72 hours after the 9/11 attack. I tried to explain to him that his interpretation of Bush’s request was incorrect, and that there was no effort to extract concessions from Israel as a way of pacifying Arab anger, a view that Sharon told me he believed. Rather, I argued, the President wanted peace process diplomacy to proceed, in line with traditional American policy. Sharon would have none of these arguments, and his anger only deepened.


None of this surprised me; I had approached Sharon with no expectation of changing his mind. I was a new ambassador, having arrived only in July 2001, and my background as a professional foreign service officer made me suspect in the eyes of some in Sharon’s circle. I had promised the Prime Minister in our first meeting in July that I would never ask anything of him that had not been cleared by or instructed from the White House, but the distrust was there, especially at that early period of my ambassadorial tenure.


Unexpected flare-up


This uneasy situation continued for the next two weeks, as the U.S. administration made plans for responding to the terrorist attack and calming the American homeland. But Sharon’s anger boiled over on October 5 when, during a press conference, he suggested that the United States was “appeasing” the Arabs at Israel’s expense: “Do not try to appease the Arabs at our expense. We cannot accept this,” Sharon declared.


Ordinarily, I would have jumped immediately to tamp down the expected backlash from Washington over Sharon’s accusations, which were over the top and highly insulting to an ally as constant as the United States. However, throughout the evening of Sharon’s speech, the American Consul General in Jerusalem, my Defense Attaché, and I were entirely preoccupied, mediating between the Israeli army and the Palestinian Authority in an attempt to rescue several Israeli hikers who had wandered into a West Bank village and had taken refuge in a private home.


At that time – a year into the Palestinian Intifada, or uprising – nearly all interactions between Israelis and Palestinians were marked by violence. That evening, the Israeli army was threatening to enter the village in force to rescue the trapped hikers – a step which could have escalated immediately into a pitched battle with villagers and local Palestinian security forces. After several hours of back-and-forth negotiations, the village leaders agreed to allow a small number of soldiers to enter the village and escort the hikers to safety.

I mustered as much diplomatic politesse as I could and said to Sharon: “You alone, Mr. Prime Minister, created this situation, and I am instructed by the President to advise that he expects a full, public retraction of your comments immediately."

Tired, but happy to have helped to avert a serious incident, I went to sleep, unaware of Sharon’s speech. Then, as happened so often during my tenure, I was awakened by a call from the White House, with a senior National Security Council official telling me that the President was furious with Sharon’s remarks, which had been broadcast widely immediately. I was instructed to talk to Sharon right away and tell him the United States expected a full public retraction.


Ambassadors and embassies receive instructions to engage with the host government all the time, but instructions directly from the president are rare. In fact, it was the first of only two presidential instructions that I received during my eight years as ambassador to Egypt and later to Israel. All other communications came from the State Department, with Foggy Bottom responsible for securing concurrence or clearance from the White House.


Next morning, I called Sharon repeatedly from 7:00 AM until he called back at about 10:30. The ensuing conversation was the most uncomfortable I experienced during my nearly 30 years representing the United States. Sharon accused me of distorting his words and creating the crisis with the president. True to his reputation as a bull in a china shop, he continued quite vocally with this line of argumentation for almost 15 minutes without interruption.


When he finally paused, I mustered as much diplomatic politesse as I could and said to the Prime Minister: “Your speech was carried verbatim by all news services, and no one distorted it. In fact, I did not even report your speech, having been absorbed with resolving the mini-crisis of the hikers in the Palestinian village. You alone, Mr. Prime Minister, created this situation, and I am instructed by the President to advise that he expects a full, public retraction of your comments immediately.”


It took another 48 hours until Sharon spoke publicly using language that satisfied the White House, which ended the crisis. In some ways, I felt that it had actually bolstered my standing as ambassador, having weathered Sharon’s wrath without backing down from what President Bush expected. During the remaining four years of my service in Israel, Sharon and I enjoyed a very positive personal and working relationship.


Drawing closer


Despite this temporary blip, the period after 9/11 witnessed a deepening of U.S.-Israeli relations in several important respects. First, whereas the United States had objected before 9/11 to certain Israeli counterterrorism tactics, such as targeted assassinations, after the attacks U.S. tactics moved in many of the same directions. Second, in a speech in late September – before the contretemps over so-called “appeasement” – Sharon expressed support for a Palestinian state, albeit one with limited territorial contiguity. While Sharon certainly did not intend it, his remarks opened the door for what became American acceptance of Palestinian statehood – first in a speech in Louisville by Secretary of State Colin Powell, and later in a major presidential address.


My own role as U.S. ambassador also changed in the aftermath of 9/11. When we met for the first time, Sharon had told me that he wanted to meet or talk every week or so, even when we had no business to conduct. After 9/11, this became a reality, and we either saw each other or talked by phone every week or so for the next four years.


I understood that, from Sharon’s perspective, this was a means of keeping an eye on my activities and influencing my reports to Washington. But from an ambassador’s perspective, these frequent conversations and contacts represented an extraordinary opportunity to dig deeply into the personality and political thinking of the country’s leader.


As I came to know Sharon, my respect for him increased and the doubts that some American officials had about his judgment dissipated. Whereas he often boasted to me about some of the “rogue” actions that he took earlier in his military and political career, his actions as prime minister were measured, and his strategic vision was impressive.


Weapons seized onboard the "Karine A" on display in Israel, 2002. Zinni was caught unprepared | Photo: Moshe Milner, GPO

One conversation stands out in my memory. During a late-night meeting in the run-up to Israel’s disengagement from Gaza in 2005, Sharon said he wanted to tell me a story, something he often did to illustrate a point. He recalled that, as Minister of Agriculture in the late 1970s, he had brought to the Cabinet a proposal to build a bloc of settlements in southern Gaza and to create strips of settlements that would divide the Strip. The Cabinet voted down his proposal.


Sharon said he went ahead anyway and built what became Gush Qatif and several of the other settlements that were planned for dismantlement under the disengagement plan. His unstated point was crystal clear to me: despite opposition from his own Likud party and from the settlement movement, he planned to proceed with the disengagement from Gaza.

Sharon proved to be the most consequential strategist, tactician, and politician in the country. For example, immediately after the United States dispatched General Anthony Zinni as a security emissary late in 2001, Israel intercepted the “Karine A,” a ship carrying weapons from Iran, destined for Gaza. Sharon revealed this operation to Zinni during their first meeting in early 2002, catching the U.S. envoy off guard and essentially setting the agenda for the emissary’s subsequent initial meeting with PLO leader Yasser Arafat.


Following the meeting, Zinni, his political advisor Aaron David Miller, and I discussed the implications of the Karine A seizure on the emissary’s goal, which was to bring the Intifada to an end so as to resume peace talks. I recall telling Zinni that the incident could torpedo his mission: Arafat would likely deny involvement (which, in fact, he did) and Sharon would use it as a reason to intensify actions against Palestinians (which, in fact, he did).

I had firm instructions from the White House to stop Israel from harming or exiling Arafat. Sharon unhappily complied


Sharon and the Israeli Cabinet then declared Arafat off-limits, while the Bush administration continued contacts with Arafat until the summer of 2002. However, the attitude toward him stiffened when the PLO leader denied the incontrovertible fact of his involvement in Karine A. Zinni’s mission continued for several more months, but in a sense, the die had been cast. Eventually, the administration decided that senior officials would no longer meet the PLO leader.


Understandings, with limitations


U.S.-Israeli relations experienced several challenging moments after 9/11 but also deepened considerably as a result of the shared experience of being the targets of terrorism. Sharon repeated this theme constantly in meetings with visiting American officials, Congressional representatives, and others.


Some differences remained: for example, I had extremely firm instructions from the White House to stop Israel from harming or exiling Arafat, which the Israeli government clearly was contemplating. Sharon unhappily complied with the U.S. demand, and Israel neither harmed nor deported the Palestinian leader. I also had firm instructions to advise the Israeli government not to build in the so-called E-1 area between Jerusalem and Ma’aleh Adumim, as such construction would contribute to cutting the West Bank in half and impeding the future contiguity of a Palestinian state. Here, too, the Israeli government complied.


The overall trajectory of bilateral relations since the 1967 war and 9/11 reflected extensive growth and development, marked by occasional mini-crises and setbacks. Presidents from both parties have found ways to build and deepen the relationship, transforming U.S.-Israeli ties into a real strategic partnership. I was proud to contribute to the deepening and strengthening of U.S.-Israeli ties, especially in the aftermath of one of the most traumatic moments in U.S. history.

Daniel C. Kurtzer is the S. Daniel Abraham Professor of Middle East Policy Studies at Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs. During a 29-year career in the U.S. Foreign Service, he served as the United States Ambassador to Israel and Egypt and was a member of the Middle East peace team for Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Secretary of State Warren Christopher, where he played an instrumental role in coordinating the Madrid peace conference and the bilateral and multilateral negotiations that followed. Ambassador Kurtzer is the co-author of Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace: American Leadership in the Middle East; co-author of The Peace Puzzle: America’s Quest for Arab-Israeli Peace, 1989-2011; and editor of Pathways to Peace: America and the Arab-Israeli Conflict. He received his Ph.D. in political science from Columbia University.

(Photo: Jon Roemer, courtesy of the author)

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